Setting Up the Online World

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Panciera enjoys teaching to students everything she learned as the assistant managing editor at the Journal.

As a professor, Andrea Panciera gets up in the morning and sits with her coffee for about half an hour before she starts planning her day. This is a luxury she couldn’t enjoy earlier, as the assistant managing editor of The Providence Journal.

At the news organization, Panciera held multiple posts that allowed her to start from the bottom and finish at the top. She started at the night editing desk and ended up heading the online department.

She was less than familiar with the nuances of the online world when she started off but, she wanted to embrace the technology. “As times went on and you had to diversify in terms of what you were providing to your audience, you had to add online to it,” she says. She became one of the first people to introduce the online version of The Providence Journal.

From print to online

Panciera recalls her days doing print journalism where deadlines “would be killer at the last hour.”

She would spend her day sitting at a copy desk editing stories, sent in by her reporters, one by one. It all changed when she decided to become the online editor in 1994.

Panciera began her career as a reporter and editor for The Westerly Sun.

Panciera began her career as a reporter and editor at The Westerly Sun.

“Online is never over,” she said. Her job required her to work quickly and continuously. To add to the speed were the layers of editing that she had to do for the online medium. “If I have to be a very good online editor, I am building a story by using different features that are available to me online,” Panciera said. “I am adding photos. At some point, I am probably coming up with videos. I am adding hypertext links.”

The web has its advantages. A story in print couldn’t go with just one sentence but it could go as a breaking news alert online. “If I was reporting online and I knew that there was fire on Main Street then that’s all I am going to say. But if I am writing for a newspaper, ‘fire on Main Street’ isn’t enough.”

Editors can also keep adding information online. “You know online I can add ‘fire involving three buildings that are at the corner of Main Street,’ as tweets,” she said.

The interaction with the audience and getting its attention also became a priority. “You have to make sure that the crux of the story was at the top. Don’t let it be 2 minutes into the video, 6 paragraphs in. You need to snag your audience right in the beginning. On the web, you just have seconds to grab your audience,” Panciera said.

Embracing the audience

Through websites and mobile apps, you get to know what your readers want to read and what they are looking for. This direct relationship, absent in print, is what makes online journalism dynamic. “You could measure which stories were the most popular, you could see which one got the most comments,” Panciera said.

The constant feedback also motivated her and her team to keep working hard. “The reporters, once they realized we could see who were reading their stories, they wanted to know ‘how much business did I get?’” Panciera said.

But engaging with the audience isn’t always a rosy picture for online editors and Panciera too had a tough time dealing with it. Criticism flowed in as soon as she posted the stories online. “It is tough to hear criticism every day, especially if it is not put nicely. I think the whole of online staff learned how to sift through the criticism to find what was valid and to find what wasn’t,” she said.

As Panciera was defining online journalism for the Journal, she realized that her job also included defining the organization’s interaction with the audience. For her, it was tough decision.

But there were also times that she had to shut the conversation down. “You get to play in the sandbox as long as you play nicely and once you don’t, we own the sandbox, so we can tell you to go,” she said.

She believes that patience and listening are the two qualities a journalist ought to have. She learned these two as she worked her way into the online world.

A choice and hardships

Panciera started off with doing three to four jobs at the same organization but still wasn’t getting the variety she wanted. But when she was approached by the head of electronic publishing at The Providence Journal, she knew that an opportunity was knocking at her door. “He had said I think she can do that job and asked me if I was interested and I think my response was ‘yes.’’’ Panciera says while laughing.

After taking on the post, she used to walk into a room full of men discussing news and tell them what the online world was saying. But she was scarcely rewarded.

“I had to sit with other editors and it was a real challenge because what I was doing was a threat to many people and the established organization,” she said. “I was the target of a lot of criticism. I was expected to take the high road.”

The vast online technology and the world of computers posed a similar problem as those by her colleagues. She remembers when she was trying to update the website, projo.com, to alert people of a storm in her area.

“Due to a power outage, my computer wasn’t working,” she said. So in the basement of her house, in biting cold, using a dial-up connection, she used her make-shift computer to update the website. “It is important to figure out how to be resourceful,” she said.

But over the years, she adapted to the technology. “I would be swearing under my breath all the time while using a computer earlier. I went back to the Providence newsroom a few months ago. I ended up sitting next to a man I worked with earlier. After about a half an hour later, he says, ‘Andrea, you have changed. You are not swearing at the computer anymore,’” she said.

The end of an era

Panciera's Multimedia Journalism class at Boston University (2014).

Panciera’s Multimedia Journalism class at Boston University (2014).

Panciera was certain that she didn’t want to keep doing this all her life. “I had a buyout option and this is the first time they allowed managers to do that. I did some quick scribbling and said that I can take it,” she said.

Now, she teaches Multimedia Storytelling at the College of Communications, Boston University. While talking about different mediums of communications, she tells her students to “learn in school if you have the opportunity and you will learn it on the job no matter what because when you get out of class, everything will be different. Technology will be different.”

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